A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris
ADVICE FOR THE TRAVELER
There are countless guides available, in print and online, for anyone planning travel to, in, and around Rome, and resources for traveling in the south, though skimpier, are not hard to come by (type “Basilicata Italy travel” into Google, and you’ll get about 600,000 results). This is not the place for that sort of advice, though I do have one practical suggestion for the southern leg of the trip: use a travel agent who specializes in Italy, for it will save you many headaches and much hassle, at a cost that is truly negligible relative to the overall expense (we used Connoisseur’s Travel, an excellent agency based in Chicago). That general suggestion aside, the notes that follow concentrate on the experience of the via Appia itself.
Excellent preparation for traveling the Appia can be found in The Appian Way: From Its Foundation to the Middle Ages, a sumptuous production edited by Ivana Della Portella and published by Oxford University Press for the Getty Museum. It is by far the best of the very few books in English that treat the whole length of the road for a general audience, with a marvelous collection of photographs and a series of essays on the successive segments of the route. The essays are informative, if impersonal and a bit stiff, and though the book is not intended to be a field guide—other considerations aside, its hardcover, 8.5″× 10.5″ format makes it a bit unwieldy for that sort of use—each essay contains an “itinerary” that can be photocopied and carried for reference.
The two best English-language guides to the archaeological sites in and around the capital are Rome, also from Oxford University Press, in a second edition (2010) by Amanda Claridge, Judith Toms, and Tony Cubberley; and Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, by Filippo Coarelli (Berkeley, 2008). Both are available in paperback, and both are helpful in an “on your left you will see… , and then on your right…” sort of way. For the Appia specifically, the itineraries available online—gratis and in English—at the archeological park’s website are well worth having on hand as you walk (http://www.parcoappiaantica.it/en/default.asp). In Italian there are two sets of itineraries that cover the length of the Appia, one produced by Lorenzo Quilici—the greatest modern scholar of the road—for the series Itinerari d’arte e di cultura / Via Appia; the other by a range of authors for the series Antiche strade.
A bit further afield, Ray Laurence’s Roads of Roman Italy: Mobility and Cultural Change (London, 1999), while unmistakably an academic book, gives an accessible and imaginative overview of its subject. In a different vein entirely, there’s Steven Saylor’s Murder on the Appian Way (New York, 1997), about the death of Clodius, one of a series of mystery-thrillers featuring “Gordianus the Finder” that take episodes in Cicero’s career as their starting points: written with a scholar’s sense of the period and a novelist’s feel for character, the whole series has given me many hours of pleasure.
Then there are two books written from a personal point of view and in a personal voice. In Between Two Seas: A Walk Down the Appian Way (London, 1991), Charles Lister, a former BBC announcer and schoolmaster, offers a quirky account of a trek he made from Rome to Brindisi in 1961: though it has interesting reflections on what a still very rural southern Italy was like fifty years ago, the writing is often dire—if the Mezzogiorno in the middle third of the twentieth century is what you’re after, far better to read Carlo Levi’s masterpiece, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Peter Stothard’s On the Spartacus Road (New York, 2010), as its title suggests, is not about the Appia itself, though the trail of Spartacus’s insurrection inevitably overlaps with the Appia for significant stretches: as literate and engaging as you would expect a book by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement to be, it does not bear much love for the Romans. (Whereas earlier generations of British scholars and intellectuals tended to admire the Roman Empire as a forerunner of their own, the consensus in postimperial Britain has shifted, and there now seems to be broad agreement that the Romans were bastards. My view is that the Romans were what they were, and that understanding what they were does not advance by taking an attitude toward them, especially when the attitude is one of moral superiority.) Finally, if some background reading would be useful, to help you tell the Angevins from the Aragonese (and from all the rest who seized, held, and lost chunks of southern Italy over the centuries), I can recommend Christopher Duggan’s A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge, 1994).
It will already be clear, from the beginning of this book, that I emphatically do not recommend walking the first two miles of the Appia beyond the porta San Sebastiano: between the traffic and the encroachment that has privatized most of the antiquities worth seeing, the risk is not remotely offset by the gain. For that matter—as I discovered only afterward—the archaeological park itself advises against walking on the particularly terrifying stretch between the entry to the catacombs of San Callisto and the catacombs of San Sebastiano. Instead, it is suggested that pedestrians follow the driveway that leads from the entry to San Callisto’s grounds to the catacombs proper themselves, running parallel to the Appia. This is a sensible alternative, especially if you intend to take the tour. If you simply must walk on that stretch of the Appia, do it on a Sunday, when the road is supposed to be closed to vehicles and the police make a reasonable attempt to enforce the ban.
There are three alternatives to walking those initial miles. First, and most expensive, you can take a taxi to, for example, the catacombs (except on Sunday). Archeobus provides another alternative, a system of open buses that circulate on a fixed route linking noteworthy ancient sites throughout Rome, including a couple of stops on the Appia: once you have your ticket, you can hop on and off ad lib all day—though if the Appia is your only goal, and you do not plan to hop on and off all day elsewhere in the city, this too is an expensive alternative.
The option I prefer entails an easy combination of Metro and bus (one low fare allows you to ride both): either the Metro B line to the Circo Massimo, followed by a #118 bus to a stop at the San Sebastiano catacombs, from which you can continue outbound safely on foot; or the Metro A line to Colli Albani, followed by a #660 bus to the Cecilia Metella stop, from which you can continue out or take a short walk back toward the catacombs.
Travelers for whom the word “park” suggests the state and national park systems of the United States, which offer various amenities for visitors should know that there are no comparable amenities in the archaeological park of the via Appia antica. Between the San Sebastiano and Cecilia Metella bus stops there are several private establishments—one very bad restaurant (on the right as you walk away from the city), one very good restaurant (L’Archeologia, on the left), and a small café at Cecilia Metella where bicycles can also be rented. But between Cecilia Metella and the tomb of Gallienus six Roman miles away, there are no facilities of any sort, beyond a small bar and restaurant attached to a tennis club on the via degli Eugenii, off the Appia about a mile and a half beyond Cecilia Metella. (A sign on the Appia says that the club is 100 meters away, a bold lie: it’s 600 meters.) If you plan to spend a day in the best part of the park, walking out from Cecilia Metella, see to the needs of nature before you start and pack a lunch with plenty of water.
South of Rome you will do more driving than walking, but of course there are a number of places you will want to explore on foot. Here is a baker’s dozen of must-stops, with their coordinates in parentheses so you can pinpoint them on Google Maps or “fly” to them on Google Earth.
Terracina: here the Appia grazes a “purgatory church” and the remains of the Roman Capitolium before entering the ancient forum (the central municipal plaza of today’s city), where it passes the cathedral of San Cesareo, which occupies the site of a temple of Rome and Augustus (41°17′30.64″N 13°14′55.77″E); high above the town, the ruins of the temple of Jupiter Anxur look out over the sea (41°17′26.73″N 13°15′34.38″E).
Parco Naturale dei Monti Aurunci, between Fondi and Itri(41°18′46.27″N 13°29′16.72″E).
Cicero’s tomb, Formia (41°15′05.61″N 13°34′42.99″E).
Ancient Minturnae (41°14′59.30″N 13°44′05.69″E).
The amphitheater, Santa Maria Capua Vetere (41°05′09.25″N 14°15′00.33″E).
Trajan’s Arch, Benevento (41°07′56.89″N 14°46′44.86″E).
Ancient Aeclanum (41°03′16.4″N 15°00′36.20″E).
Melfi Castle (40°59′54.18″N 15°39′10.33″E).
Ancient Venusia and the church of the Santissima Trinità, Venosa (40°58′08.14″N 15°49′38.82″E).
Gravina: The cathedral and the churches of Santa Maria del Suffragio and Saint Basil are all within a short walk of one another (40°49′06.41″N 16°24′49.39″E). Not on the Appia but worth a brief detour is the city of Altamura, nine miles away, which has a distinguished cathedral begun by Frederick II of Swabia and bread that is famous throughout Italy (40°49′38.88″N 16°33′11.34″E).
The archaeological museum, Taranto (40°28′23.26″N 17°14′21.42″E).
Oria (40°29′54.27″N 17°38′32.13″E).
The harbor, Brindisi: The cathedral and the archaeological museum are also nearby, about a hundred yards from the waterfront (40°38′28.35″N 17°56′47.55″E).
Cycling from Rome to Brindisi is an option, one taken up not long ago by a graduate student in my department and her husband, who made the trip in twelve days. But that route is for people younger, fitter, and bolder than we are, and I assume that most readers who are tempted to make the trip will have the same point of view. If you’ve driven in Italy before, you know that it is not terribly challenging (even in Rome—honestly); if you haven’t, the following bullet points might be of some use:
The best maps for tracing the ancient route of the Appia—as for locating any other feature of the ancient Mediterranean basin and its environs—are found in the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton, 2000), one of the great recent achievements in ancient studies: the maps of central and southern Italy (maps 44 and 45, respectively) are well worth photocopying and carrying with you. The distinguished editor of the Barrington Atlas, Richard Talbert, has more recently written a book on the Tabula Peutingeriana—Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (Cambridge, 2010)— and you can view the entire Tabula as a seamless whole, in color, on the website that supplements the book (select Map A at http://www.cambridge.org/us/talbert/).
For the modern road system, the Michelin maps for “Italie Centre” and “Italie Sud” are reasonably priced and certainly adequate, but I recommend instead (or in addition) the series of maps dedicated to Italy’s administrative provinces, from Lazio to Brindisi, which can be purchased easily online (just type “road maps Italy provinces” into Google, and you’ll find a vendor within a few clicks). These are easier to handle than the rather unwieldy Michelin maps and, more important, they’re drawn on a larger scale (1:250,000 vs. 1:400,000); the added detail is worth the expense. Note, in any case, that whereas any map you use will identify the roads you take by number (for example, SS7 = Strada statale 7), the signage on the ground rarely uses the number to identify a road or to indicate a choice between roads. Instead, signs use the names of towns, typically pointing you toward the next town located on a given road. In using a map, then, you need to look one move ahead, having in mind both where you are and the name of the next town in the direction you want to go.
I’ve already sung the praises of the people we met, for their kindness and goodwill, and I’ll do some more of that soon, but first I should note a regional peculiarity that you will encounter every day, one that I found puzzling and annoying, if finally a bit endearing. It concerns the interaction of people and euro notes. If you offer to pay a $12 tab with a $20 bill in a shop or eating place in the States, it will be taken as an obvious thing to do; in fact, if you try to pay a $2 tab with a $20 bill, you will be met by nothing more than the occasional, “Got anything smaller?” But try to pay a €12 tab with a €20 note in any establishment in southern Italy: looks of hurt and reproach as employees empty their own pockets in search of change, then perhaps a dash to the shop next door. As for €50 or €100 notes: please, be serious. One evening in Benevento, when I tried to pay for our €40-odd worth of dinner with a €100 note, the grandmotherly owner, with whom we’d been chatting on and off throughout the meal, recoiled and raised her hands in a defensive gesture, as though I’d drawn a weapon. But when we’d settled up and I put down the €5 note that is the conventional token of thanks for service above and beyond the cover charge, she quickly scooped it up and added it to a sheaf of notes, two inches thick, that she produced from her apron pocket. It was then that I decided, well, something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear… Whatever the cause of this quirk, I mention it on the chance that doing so will save you from spending an outsized chunk of a morning as I did, waiting on line in a bank to get change for some larger denomination notes. When you buy your euros, insist on nothing larger than €20 bills.
Currency is a medium of exchange and so a form of language, complete with its inevitable opacities and mistaken signals. Even more obviously, language is a form of language. I’ve already had more than one occasion to refer to my very imperfect grasp of Italian, but what I’ve left mostly unremarked is the openhearted willingness of people to work with me in my struggles. It is a cliché to speak of the kindness of the Italian people, and another to say that if you make an effort, people will cut you a generous amount of slack; but clichés are often clichés because they are true. Though English is less commonly spoken in the south than in Rome and farther north, you will generally find enough in hotels and restaurants to get by— but you should also try to meet people halfway. If you know no Italian, take along a simple phrasebook: I assure you that you will not only manage but take pleasure in the interchanges besides. Every exchange that we had—if we set aside a few taxi drivers in and around Rome who were actual thieves—added to our enjoyment and, yes, confi rmed the clichés. Typical of these exchanges was our encounter with a young mother in Mirabella Eclano, whom we approached for directions after driving in circles for an hour looking for the site of ancient Aeclanum. She knew no English whatever, and she quickly gauged the limits of my Italian, but she shrugged, clapped her hands, and said, “Proviamo”—“Let’s try.” It came to nothing (we spent another hour driving in circles before stumbling on the site by chance), but that single verb remains one of my favorite memories of our travels.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 115-24 of The Appian Way : Ghost Road, Queen of Roads by Robert A. Kaster, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)